A three-time All-Star second baseman in the American League, Baerga became a mediocre, injury-riddled second baseman in the National League after a 1996 trade brought him to the New York Mets. By the age of 31, Baerga was out of baseball.
The scouting report on Baerga had always been that he was a solid clutch hitter who was shaky with the glove. Born in Puerto Rico, Baerga spent three years in the minors before joining the Indians in August 1990 and quickly became their most reliable pinch-hitter. He was the Indians’ starting third baseman at the start of the next season, then took over at second base from Jerry Browne mid-year.
For the next five seasons, the consistent Baerga was one of the main cogs in the Indians’ rise to power in the AL, placing high amongst team and league leaders in batting average, homers and RBI. On April 8, 1993, at Yankee Stadium, the switch-hitter became the only batter in history to hit homers from both sides of the plate in the same inning.
Baerga was also a leader in clubhouse and was well-liked by all his teammates. But he put on some weight over the winter of 1995-96, and management felt he had a lackadaisical attitude; he often could be seen chatting on a cell phone during batting practice. His hitting fell proportionately to his perceived behavior problems.
He was batting just .267 when, on July 30, 1996, he became the Mets’ 103rd third baseman, traded to New York with infielder Alvaro Espinoza in exchange for Jeff Kent and Jose Vizcaino. The trade angered and confused many Cleveland fans, who considered Baerga the cornerstone of their team. The Mets thought Baerga could be a star player once again, but he hit only .193 for New York in 26 games.
Things got worse the following season. Baerga got off to an extremely slow start with the Mets in 1997, then sustained a rib injury that limited his playing time and forced him to bat exclusively left-handed. Meanwhile, Kent, since traded to the Giants, started to emerge as a star player, slugging 29 homers and knocking in 121 runs.
Baerga managed to put in a full season for the Mets in 1998, but still showed no signs of his former self. He started the season slowly, heated up briefly, but faded again to finish at .266 with only seven homers. After the season the Mets showed no interest in renewing his contract.
Baerga tried in vain to find somewhere to play. Cut by St. Louis before playing a game, he was offered a minor-league contract by the Reds and spent three months in Triple-A before San Diego gave him a chance to return to the majors. Baerga batted .250 in various roles with the Padres until, much to his delight, the Indians reacquired him late in the season to play a utility role.
Cleveland fans loved the move, and they gave an emotional Baerga standing ovations. Still, Baerga, only 30, was not the same man who collected averaged .290 and 85 RBI as a member of the Indians earlier in the decade. He finished the year with a .241 average and only three homers in limited playing time. It may have been the last hurrah for the fallen star, as he tore up his knee in winter ball, leaving his future in serious doubt.